Last Updated on September 23, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4650
Sexton, Anne 1928–1974
Ms Sexton, a Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet, was a friend of Sylvia Plath and like her chose to end her own life. Erica Jong, objecting to the "confessional" tag always hung on Ms Sexton's work, says that if anything, Anne Sexton [was] a psychological poet," and her poems were "the reincarnation, the regurgitation, the living she [made] out of the jaws of death." (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 53-56.)
Anne Sexton's … poems are stark, slow-moving pieces which combine terse statement with forceful metaphor, sacrificing syntactical flow and complexity to the stabbing power of sharply delineated images. What makes [The Book of Folly] distinctive is the tension between that stringent control and a Plath-like sense of sickening vacuity at the core of things. The poems return obsessionally to images of physical disintegration and devouring, casting them in a toneless, laconic style which weirdly intensifies their force….
A sense of twisted, disrupted relations between parent and child is, again like Sylvia Plath, close to the book's heart, a primary source of its emotional energy; and this relates to the fears of being devouring and of being devoured. The occasional poem is too blatantly derivative of Plath's work, aping both her tone and metaphorical mode…. Yet the volume finds it own voice in a sequence entitled "The Jesus Papers", which concludes it; for here the braced, poised, sometimes ritualistic posture of earlier poems is relaxed just enough to allow a colloquial, faintly sardonic realism to come through. (p. 148)
The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1974; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), February 15, 1974.
Let us say that Anne Sexton resisted death, suicide, as long as she was able….
She was a remarkable woman. From the beginning the main impulse behind her poetry, it seems, was therapy. Out of her raw experiences with madness, with love, with doctors, with obsessions that sometimes seemed to lift the top of her head off, came poems that helped her to keep going, poems that were even more radical in their "confessions" than those of W. D. Snodgrass and Robert Lowell. As she says in an early poem, "I was born/doing reference work in sin, and born/confessing it." Her first book ("To Bedlam and Part Way Back," 1960), was … the "cry of the heart" that William Butler Yeats once said he wanted 20th-century poetry to be….
To my mind, her poems went almost steadily downhill, became less intense, less dramatic, less interesting as one book followed another. Her voice began to sound watered-down, as though she were speaking to us from a great distance. There were moments, occasional lines or even poems that wept or raged with her old power, but her voice usually became duller, more common, often maudlin or patently melodramatic or simply silly. She began to talk to us rather than show us, or, when she did show us, sometimes built whole poems on mannered images, images that shocked just once and then seemed superficial. Perhaps it is unsympathetic to say this, but the later poems so often seemed filled up with a conventional anguish, and her own early and inimitable work had led us to expect something sharper, something located within a more memorable language. It has never been enough, in poetry, merely to tell the truth. (p. 20)
Nor does "The Awful Rowing Toward God" reverse this loss of energy. This first posthumous book of uncollected poems—I understand that there will be at least one other—is readable and often touching, but it's not very good. I'd felt, some time before her death, that Anne had already given us her best work, that her poems were becoming as weak and uncertain as was her ability to hold to the lifeline, and I'm afraid that this new book bears me out…. There's a certain blur and rush to this book, as though it can't make up its mind, can't find or define its own thrust or parabola. (pp. 20, 16)
Her world, a theologian might say, is inert, a world without reciprocity, one that will not reveal itself, will not shimmer with transcendence….
Anne's abiding problem as the artist behind each poem must be to continue to find, somehow, images that render the spiritual conditions of her poems beyond triteness. It is true that the sensibility of the God brought forth in this book is finally quirky, blotched, passionate and murderous, perfect only in the perfections of its imperfections; and it is also true that Anne believed in going on, writing the next poem, allowing her poems to, perhaps, be filled with the weaknesses of her own soul. But it may not be ungracious of us to ask for more "voltage" in more poems….
Anne is always sincere here,… but her failing powers to symbolize the complex world of her emotions lends an air of simplicity to "The Awful Rowing Toward God" that is usually incongruous, and even, as she tries harder and harder, often grotesque. (p. 16)
William Heyen, "Holy Whispers beside the Grave," in Newsday, March 23, 1975, pp. 20, 16.
Anne Sexton wrote a poem that belongs with the most terrible and yet the most intelligent and convincing work of what is loosely called the "confessional mode." The poem is "Wanting to Die," and it is included in "Live or Die," Anne Sexton's third volume. [It] is probably the poet's central poem, the calm, dispassionate and sparely-crafted statement that makes the familiar charges of "hysteria" quite irrelevant….
[The] 39 poems of Sexton's posthumous volume, "The Awful Rowing Toward God,"… set out reasons, explanations and occasionally rueful apologies for her emotional predicament; like some of the finest poems of "The Book of Folly" of 1972, these poems attempt not simply the poetic expression of emotion—that "unstoppered fullness" Robert Lowell praised—but intelligent and sometimes highly critical analysis of the suicidal impulse…. "The Awful Rowing Toward God" contains poems of superb, unforgettable power, but it would be disingenuous of any reviewer to suppose that the book will be bought and eagerly read for the excellence of its craft. (Many contemporary poets are fine craftsmen, in fact; never have so many people been capable of writing so well, and with so little possibility of being justly recognized.) The book will probably be bought because it is the posthumous volume Anne Sexton had planned and because it describes, with more candor and wit and warmth than Sylvia Plath allowed herself, the stages of the "rowing" toward what Sexton calls "God."
The volume begins with a poem called "Rowing" and ends with "The Rowing Endeth" and the "untamable, eternal, gut driven ha-ha" that is the triumph of the union of God and man. Between are poems of sorrow, poems of anger, poems of befuddlement and terror and love, and while some are almost too painful to read ("The Sickness Unto Death," "The Big Heart"), many are as slangy and direct as those "Eighteen Days Without You" that conclude the volume "Love Poems," my personal favorite among her eight books….
There are poets who seem to choose their surreal images with fastidious care, as if seeking physical images to describe what are primarily intellectual or even ideological beliefs; Anne Sexton, however, gives the impression of selecting from a great flood of dream-like or nightmarish images precisely those which communicate most directly to the reader (and to the poet herself). Her painful honesty is well known. What her unsympathetic critics have charged her with—an overvaluing of her private sorrows to the exclusion of the rest of the world—seems to have been felt by Sexton herself…. Anne Sexton, then, can be dismissed as "sick" and her poetry dismissed as the outpouring of a pathologically egocentric imagination—unless one is willing to make the risky claim, which will not be a popular one, that poets like Sexton, Plath, and John Berryman have dealt in excruciating detail with collective (and not merely individual) pathologies of our time. (p. 3)
The more fortunate artist is simply one who, for reasons not known, identifies powerfully with a unit larger than the self: Faulkner with his "postage stamp" of earth, Shakespeare with the glorious, astounding variety of human personality, Dostoevsky with all of Russia. Such artists surely dramatize their own emotions, but they give life to the world outside the self by means of these emotions and in so doing often draw up into consciousness aspects of the collective human self that would otherwise not be tapped…. Anne Sexton yearned for that larger experience, that rush of near-divine certainty that the self is immortal; she knew it existed but she could not reach it. "The place I live in/is a kind of maze/and I keep seeking/the exit or the home" ("The Children"). Trapped within her specific, private self, she seems to have despaired of any remedy short of death…. (p. 4)
Joyce Carol Oates, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 23, 1975.
Many of [Anne Sexton's] early poems depict intensely introverted states in a highly extroverted style, are desperate in spirit but have a breezy air. Colloquial in statement, clever in juxtapositions, they are sleek too in a certain recurring employment of nuances, rhymes, couplets. The later poems, though, seem to me less commanding, strike dissonant strains, chromatize the keyboard, or become programmatic, a little like Gray's "moody madness laughing wild amidst severest woe." And the language suffers. Often in The Book of Folly and The Death Notebooks, and now in her posthumous collection, The Awful Rowing Toward God, the churning of a symbol, the intrusion of a raw memory betray Anne Sexton almost as ludicrously as the ass in the lion's skin betrayed himself when he began to bray….
Anne Sexton often wrote of the cruelty of life and the cruelty of people, particularly the ungiving nature of her parents, yet unlike Sylvia Plath she seems always to have been asking to be forgiven. Plath had a colder heart, perhaps, but wrote fiercer, purer poetry—was indeed a genius. Sylvia Plath refused to forgive the world and there's always something triumphant about that refusal. Plath is always, as she says, "ready for enormity," crossing the frontier, with no carols to be sung, no Whitmanian salutations to accompany the hearse—and one has to honor her. Faithful to her demons, she seems, in the end, a conqueror, victorious.
Anne Sexton dealt with the theme of vulnerability directly, bluntly. Also the theme of melancholia, often picturing herself as a "possessed witch," or speaking of "menstruation at forty," or laughing at herself as a housewife mixing the martinis. But these highly womanly images were never any match for the presence that really haunted the poems, the specter of herself as a dependent, arrested in the past, the child with the "night mind" or night wound. (p. 22)
Anne Sexton's sense of violence was always faltering. Violence seems never to have enhanced her work as it did that of Mishima and Plath. With these figures there's an objectification or theatricalization of the body—Plath and her "Greek ritual," Mishima's head severed with the single stroke of a sword—that's not apparent in Sexton. The murderous impulses that lie buried in her work always verge on the lurid or the awkward; the cry of "my hungers! my hungers!" is a cry of absence, of feelings that can neither be named nor stanched. The flute player in Live or Die, whose eerie music intoxicates the poet, is a dwarf with an "enormous misshapen mouth," who sits in a cave, "a great hole in the earth," with its "tons of suffocating dirt," the distance in which his listener must enter in order to be fed.
Nietzsche says, speaking of the creativity of the artist, that "one does not get over a passion by representing it, rather it is over when one is able to represent it." But that when Sexton, I believe, never fully reached. Beneath the recklessness of so much of her language there's always a strange passivity, a great unknowingness or fear. In the brittle, excitable music of the last poems, including those of The Awful Rowing Toward God, the theme of stability often sounds, the poet admonishing herself to put a pot of soup on the stove and "light up the cave." But Anne Sexton's sensibility always went the other way. For her poems are never about how to gain things or how to consolidate things, but about how to get rid of what she already has, how to lose friends, home, children, lovers, how indeed to move backward, to hold death in her arms "like a child," the "death baby," with the "glass eye, ice eye," to be "wedded to my teddy," to bed down against the "stony head of death," to inherit, in other words, her parents' graves, and there finally to be forgiven—that is to say, forgotten, unreflective and unreflecting.
Her best poems—poems like "Flee on Your Donkey," "To Lose the Earth," "Letter Written on a Ferry While Crossing Long Island Sound"—are delicate, visceral, poignant. The throes of a dire need run through them. Others, less successful, are a diary of scars where the reader can discern his own. But good or bad, because the protagonist is so often so dreadfully unhappy they are poems one can never take lightly. (p. 23)
Robert Mazzocco, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1975 by NYREV, Inc.), April 3, 1975.
Technically [the poems in The Awful Rowing Toward God] aren't exceptional. They rely heavily on the kind of surrealist mixing of metaphors and unlikely juxtapositions that the French- and Spanish-speaking poets perfected long before most poets in the United States cared for or caught on to the strategy: "… although my heart/is a kitten of butter,/I am blowing it up like a zeppelin."
When this works, coupled with the insistent rhythms of her short lines and litanylike lists, the poems aren't easy to ignore. When the images are weak … the poems are still often hard to ignore.
What is so compelling about them, even when they are close to just plain silly, is the dark and desperate vision of the poet. It turns even the most commonplace objects and acts into devices for life's capricious maliciousness, renders the most harmless things harmful: "The windows,/the starving windows/that drive the trees like nails into my heart."…
The effect is comparable to the impact of one of those TV news reports documenting abuses in nursing homes or inadequate care for the helplessly insane or the unresolved dilemma of deformed babies condemned to lives of frustration and pain. It is totally depressing.
And those reports are usually about the extreme cases that directly involve only some of us. Sexton's poems are full of common things … that bring her aggravation and pain, or worse: "the dogs … pissing on the doorstep" "the sun turning into poison." "Picking the scabs" of the spiritual wounds this causes, she flashes the scars like credentials and those of us who might get some pleasure and satisfaction, even joy, from these common things are intimidated. How could we be so naive and insensitive.
Not that there isn't any pleasure or potential for joy in these poems. In "Welcome Morning" she claims "There is joy/in all" then catalogues it including the joy "in the outcry from the kettle … in the spoon and the chair/that cry 'hello there, Anne'/each morning … in my pea-green house." But we are right to be suspicious when a poet who gives us brilliant images of pain offers us these "outcries" and "pea-green" vehicles for "joy."…
In the poem "When Man Enters Woman" she seems at last to be talking about something pleasurable…. But again we worry about the choice of images: the "knot," the flower without its stem through which life flows. Then she refers to the impetus for such sexual coupling as the "double hunger" and we're almost ready for the conclusion that "God/in His perversity/unties the knot."…
We are left feeling foolish again for believing in the possibility of lasting relationships, or callous for not being overwhelmed by the impossibility. Even the small rewards of passing pleasures are once again revealed to be more of life's insidious tricks. And there is no room for humor. Her painful vision is always valid and real and earned and her death insured that.
It is she, the poet, who has really untied the knot. The poet acting as God in the world of the poem, constantly frustrating the reader with glimpses of hope and possible relief from "the darkness and its amputations." Death hovers about those gruesome TV reports as the only consolation, but in these poems it's too late for death, only God is left, the God she created to make these poems work, who even "in His perversity" is "the real McCoy/in the private holiness/of my hands."
Michael Lally, "A Dark and Desperate Vision," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), May 25, 1975, p. 3.
The Awful Rowing Toward God … is sad reading, not only because the poems are haunted by the self-destruction that was to be their terrible climax, but because, however rending as cries of pain, they are never more than mediocre. From the opening of "Rowing" to the final "The Rowing Endeth," Mrs. Sexton picks and scratches at the bloody scabs of her anguish, keening a futile God that is only an unrealizable vision of herself….
In most of the poems the vague cloud of unknowing that she calls God is alien, indifferent, elusive, untouchable, a mocking parody of life without death. Yet never is Mrs. Sexton's roil of feeling as she gropes for a holy order transmuted into the heightened language that is poetry. Her images are stale and flat, the words screamed, not chosen. The evil she decries in the world beyond her anguished solipsism turns into the peep show vulgarity of a horror movie, as in "After Auschwitz," where the imagery drawn from the Holocaust is too easy, in fact a desecration.
Written from the extreme knife-edge of self-slaughter, these last poems of Anne Sexton are festering wounds, alarm bells of unbearable pain. Yet they remain obdurately private and personal, and she knew it: "I have so much I want to say…. But the words aren't good enough." (p. 3)
Pearl K. Bell, in The New Leader (© 1975 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), May 26, 1975.
[The Awful Rowing Towards God] is a book of agony, but agony suffered by a woman so gifted that when she speaks of her feelings, the words are illuminated by a pure genius of language. Clearly, the God she is searching for is the symbol to her of what she is not: health, wholeness, the opposite of the rat—which, as part of the palindrome rats live on no evil star, has haunted much of her poetry….
Even in her pain and confusion, a richness of imagery tumbles off her tongue—"the sea that bangs in my throat"; she has always been astonishing and inventive in her use of metaphor. This was especially true in her earlier Transformations, where her comparisons are delightful, even hilarious. In The Death Notebooks, when God became a sun lamp, she started moving decisively toward the metaphor as a weapon, molded with the surrealism that comes from the deepest, most irrational part of the mind. One sees her in this, her last book, clinging desperately to the "real" things in her life by her fingertips, but her body dangling helplessly in the floorless world of the unreal….
It is too easy to read Sexton's decision to abandon her life in her poems. She has been sending the message for years, and fighting death's temptation ("to put all that life under your tongue!"). But even in her despair she has a kind of rueful gaiety, as in the picture of God wishing he had a body in "The Earth."
There are poems, such as "Is It True?," where one wishes the poet could have stopped and revised; there are poems full of carelessness and redundancy. But it is like wishing Niagara would stop and rearrange a pebble. The rush of her genius and passion kept her alive and we are privileged to witness the phenomenon…. (p. 66)
Ruth Whitman, in Harvard Magazine (copyright © 1975 by Harvard Magazine; reprinted by permission), July/August, 1975.
Two of the most conspicuous features of post-war American verse have been its drift toward simplicity of style and its preoccupation with self-disclosure…. [No one] has done so more dramatically than the late Anne Sexton. And nowhere in Mrs. Sexton's work are these tendencies carried to greater extremes than in the three present volumes [The Book of Folly, The Death Notebooks, and The Awful Rowing Towards God]. In these final statements the poet lays her most private moments—and her nastiest fantasies—at the reader's feet, and she reduces a once-graceful style to its barest, crudest essentials. Whatever one might think of these poems, it would seem unwise to underestimate their importance. To begin with, they are the last testament of a gifted and widely recognized American poet. Beyond that, they are a form of evidence: a field of glass around a shattered windshield. In their extremity they prompt the question of where American poetry has been during the past decade, and where it might be heading.
Anne Sexton began her career fifteen years ago as a formalist poet. Her early poems were anguished in tone and autobiographical in content, but they were well-made, polished pieces, formally inventive and often ironic. In view of their subjects, they were remarkably reticent…. Over the years Mrs. Sexton abandoned the formalist manner. Her imagery grew bold, her syntax elemental. She seemed determined to share with her growing audience the most intimate details of her private life, and she seemed increasingly indifferent toward subtlety and polish. The solidity of her early work survives in her Love Poems (1967), but in Transformations (1971), her colloquial renditions of Grimm's fairy-tales, it is almost nowhere to be found. And what becomes of style in these final poems?…
Reducing diction, imagery, and syntax to their simplest terms [in Gods, for example], she reduces her religious anxiety and religious quest to a kind of verbal cartoon. The episodic structure and pattern of comic humiliations call to mind nothing so much as the daily comic strip, or even more, the animated cartoon, whose miniature anti-hero suffers a string of defeats. Here the sought object is not a mouse or roadrunner but an elusive company of gods, and the chase is mysteriously successful. But the two structures are otherwise much the same. The pathetic figure of "Mrs. Sexton" reminds one less of St. Teresa than of Charlie Brown.
Episodic structure is prominent in these three volumes, both in the syntax of individual poems and in the structural relationships of poems grouped as sequences…. Poetic sequences have become common in post-war American poetry, but to my knowledge there have not been any sequences quite like these. On the whole, they create little or no sense of progression, whether dramatic or thematic, nor do they present multiple perspectives on a single subject or situation. More than anything, they evoke a sense of succession and repetition, of events following one another in predictable and usually empty patterns. The poems themselves generate a similar mood, with their frequent catalogs … and their elemental narratives…. (pp. 286-88)
Mrs. Sexton's reduction of syntax and structure to an episodic, childlike simplicity has its counterpart in the diction of these poems, which is often that of the nursery…. It remains puzzling, at least to this reader, why an artist capable of eloquence should have chosen so limiting an idiom. In the sequence entitled The Death of the Fathers, Mrs. Sexton employs the childlike voice as part of an effort to recreate scenes from her childhood and to confront, among other things, the question of whether her alcoholic father, who appears variously as Santa Claus, the skipper of a Chris-Craft, a dancing partner, and a storyteller, is her "real" father. Elsewhere, the childlike voice serves an ironic purpose, dramatizing the disparity between childlike innocence and adult experience…. Most of the time, however, Mrs. Sexton's reduction of speech to the level of Run-Spot-Run is merely distracting. It may represent an effort to satirize childish elements in herself and in the social role she felt compelled to play. But it has neither the variety nor the acute focus of effective satire, and it very soon wears thin.
If one of Mrs. Sexton's purposes is, in fact, to satirize her predicament as an American woman, she is well-assisted by her imagery, which in these last poems becomes a bizarre blend of Gothic and domestic. Here, as in her previous work, her metaphoric range is unusually wide. By turns her imagery is sentimental, sexual, violent, freakish, surreal, maternal, religious, and scatological…. For all its sensationalism, Mrs. Sexton's imagery does carry conviction, and it is sometimes striking…. Her most characteristic kind of metaphor fuses imagery of violence and death with imagery of the kitchen, suggesting a close, even inevitable relationship between them. Rarely have poems been so well-stocked with household products and brand-names … and with domestic objects generally. The immediate effect of such imagery is to evoke the Mad Housewife, driven to distraction by suburban confinement. More seriously, Mrs. Sexton's images evoke the horror of suburban sterility, the suppressed violence and irrational fear of a woman enmeshed in domestic routine…. Mrs. Sexton's personal tragedy seems to have been bound up in domestic objects, both as literal impediments and as symbols of her role; and through those objects she seems to have been developing, at the end of her life, a vision of her predicament. That vision is far from integrated or fully realized in these poems, but its discrete elements, set in close proximity, speak with force and insight. (pp. 289-90)
Mrs. Sexton's "rowing toward God" is indeed awful, in the oldest sense of that word. Beneath the domestic clutter and confused self-mockery of these last poems there runs a current of religious terror, as though the poet were writing, willy-nilly, her personal Dies Irae.
What she was not writing, it seems clear, were suicide notes. Nor, for the most part, are these poems cries for help. On the whole, their character is that of a preparatory ritual, in advance of a death which could come at any time. (p. 291)
It has been little more than a year since Mrs. Sexton's death, and it is surely too soon to attempt an overview of her life and work. How much help these last books will provide remains to be seen. Mrs. Sexton's last poems provide many glimpses of her private life, and they express her sense of spiritual deprivation. But nowhere do they provide a statement of belief, or a rejection of belief, or a fully-developed vision of the poet's life and the forces threatening it. Perhaps that is too much to ask of so troubled a poet. The task might best be left to those who will pick up these sharp-edged and sometimes radiant pieces.
What these last poems do provide, however, is an extreme instance of a common predicament, namely that of American poets in the aftermath of formalism. For all her uniqueness, Mrs. Sexton was one of a large number of American poets who have rejected the conventions of formalism and its doctrine of impersonality and have had to shape a style and a coherent aesthetic to replace them. In this sense Mrs. Sexton's shattered art speaks not only for a troubled American psyche but for the poets of her generation and the one presently succeeding it. (pp. 291-92)
Ben Howard, "Shattered Glass," in Poetry (© 1976 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), February, 1976, pp. 286-92.
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